John Newton was the only son of a sea captain who owned a small fleet of trading vessels. Captain Newton planned a rugged upbringing for John. He left boarding school, as soon as he was old enough, for his first taste of life at sea in a vessel trading round Mediterranean ports.
At 17, John’s father arranged for him to go on an unusually long voyage. But before he could embark, young Newton was spotted by a Royal Navy press gang. The navy desperately needed crews to fight the French fleet and John was ruthlessly press-ganged aboard a man-of-war, HMS Harwich.
Newton heard that his father was in Torbay and deserted in an attempt to seek his help. He was just outside Torbay when he was stopped by soldiers, who put him in irons and marched him back to his ship.
On board the Harwich, a humiliating punishment awaited Newton. A gathering of the whole ship’s company was called and Newton was stripped, whipped and degraded to the lowest rank.
Life among the press-ganged seamen of the ‘lower deck’ was cruel, coarse and crude, but Newton adapted to his environment. He won approval by acting the young tearaway, retelling blasphemous jokes to the admiration of all.
After some time, the fleet called in at Madeira for stores, where Newton heard that the Harwich was to exchange two of its crew for two men from a ship bound for Sierra Leone. He immediately volunteered and, within half an hour, was discharged from the navy and installed in the new vessel.
There he met a slave-trader named Clow, who owned a plantation in Sierra Leone. Slave-trading paid Clow well and Newton decided to work with him. He went ashore in Sierra Leone, a penniless but optimistic recruit to the slave-trade.
Newton had high hopes of doing well for his new employer, but within days he went down with malaria. Clow set off on an expedition leaving Newton in the hands of his African mistress. She took an instant dislike to him and abandoned him to the fever.
Captain Newton arranged for a trading ship named The Greyhound to call at Clow’s settlement to collect him. Newton was welcomed aboard as a passenger and settled down to a life of comfort. The Greyhound would continue trading for another year before heading for home.
The only useful thing Newton did on the voyage was to learn Euclid by heart. ‘Except for that’, he recorded, ‘my life was one of continual godlessness and profanity. I do not know that I have ever met a man with a mouth more vile than my own’.
As soon as The Greyhound finished trading, it set out to return home. Using trade winds they had a 7,000 mile voyage before them. But, after a long expedition in a tropical zone, the ship was badly in need of repair. Newton, by now an experienced seaman, was uneasy about the state of the vessel.
One night, Newton picked up a religious book, but soon pushed it aside and ‘went to bed … feeling as indifferent to God as I had ever been’. Suddenly he was awoken by a violent storm.
Waves pounded the ship and water poured into the cabin where he lay below decks. He climbed to the upper deck to find mountainous waves crashing across the vessel. ‘I’ll man the pumps’, shouted Newton. ‘No’, yelled the captain, ‘fetch me a knife from below’. Turning to obey, Newton saw the man at the pumps swept overboard by another gigantic wave.
The terrified crew were convinced that the end had come, and cursed Newton — their ‘Jonah’ — for ever having come aboard. At first Newton rallied the spirits of the crew. But gradually, lashed to the deck for safety and working the pumps, he began to realise the staggering reality of the situation. It was surely impossible for The Greyhound to ride any more of these colossal waves.
He surveyed the flooded area he had been pumping. ‘If that won’t do’, he said, ‘the Lord have mercy upon us’. Suddenly, his former blasphemies seemed to bite back at him.
‘What mercy do I deserve?’ he thought. The answer was painfully obvious. His instincts warned him to prepare to meet his Maker, the very thing that frightened him most. How could he face the God he had insulted for so long? He felt a crushing despair.
Yet Scripture passages read years before came to his mind with startling clarity. ‘I now began to think of that Lord Jesus whom I had so often ridiculed. I remembered … his life and death — a death for the punishment of sins not his own, but for … all those who should put their trust in him. How could I trust him to bear my punishment? I really wanted proof that God could do this. I wished that these things were true’.
Expecting to die at any moment, Newton prayed desperately to God for help. The answer came more quickly than he could have imagined. At dawn, the fury of the storm diminished, allowing the damaged hull to be patched with planks.
Newton could not rest. Seizing a Bible, he went to his cabin and read these words of Christ: ‘If ye then, being evil, know how to give good gifts unto your children: how much more shall your heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to them that ask him?’
Newton later wrote, ‘Upon this I reasoned, if the Bible is true as a whole, then this particular passage must be true. The writer, if he is God, has promised to give the Spirit to all who ask for it. Therefore I must ask for it. And if I am given it, then I must trust the whole Bible as God’s Word’.
God could forgive sinners, but would that include him? One can forgive a friend, but to forgive your arch-enemy is surely impossible. Why should he expect God to do this?
The answer lay in the experience of Saul of Tarsus, a man who hated Christ and persecuted Christians yet was freely forgiven, renamed Paul, and called by God to be an apostle. If there was mercy for Saul, thought Newton, surely there could be mercy for him too.
A God who answers prayer
The furious storm had abated, but the ship was un-seaworthy and they had no clear knowledge of their position. Day after day the men manned the pumps to keep down the water seeping into the stricken hull. They survived on salted cod: half a fish each day divided among twelve crew members.
As the days passed, they grew too weak and emaciated to operate the pumps and one seaman died. Then the food ran out, followed soon after by the water. Everything seemed lost.
But that very day — exactly four weeks after the storm broke — the battered Greyhound sighted a small island off the north coast of Ireland, and the next day they reached port. They had survived the impossible.
‘About that time’, wrote Newton, ‘I began to know that there is a God who hears and answers prayer. I felt a peace and satisfaction on that day which I had never known before’. Newton, like Saul of Tarsus, had met with Christ.
Clothed in a new humility and character, all his inner motives and desires were changed. Newton stepped off the half-wrecked Greyhound as a man with a new life within and a new start ahead. He had come to life spiritually. In the words of Christ, he had been ‘born again’.
Newton became an implacable opponent of slavery. He, more than anyone else, inspired and encouraged William Wilberforce in his political campaign to abolish slavery. For some years he held the post of Tide Surveyor at Liverpool, serving also as lay pastor in a local independent church.
He caught up on a missed education and was appointed curate of Olney Parish Church in Bedfordshire and, 16 years later, to the united parishes of St Mary Woolnoth and St Mary Lombard Street, in the City of London.
Here he ministered for 27 years. He was one of the greatest preachers of his day, being the confidant and counsellor of some of the most powerful political figures — and a reformer whose influence was felt in all the momentous social advances of his time.
John Newton preached the good news of forgiveness and conversion as a gift from God to all who sincerely repent. He preached it with characteristic vigour and urgency until he was past 80. When advised to stop preaching for the sake of his health, Newton replied, ‘Shall the old African blasphemer stop while he can speak?’
Dr Peter Masters is pastor of Metropolitan Tabernacle, London, and a former editor of Evangelical Times. This article, first published in ET in December 1996 (see also the author’s book, Men of destiny, Wakeman; 166 pages, £7.50, ISBN 978-1-870855-55-6).